William Clarke Quantrill was born in Canal Dover (now Dover), Ohio, on October 11, 1837. He was the oldest of Thomas Henry and Caroline Cornelia (Clarke) Quantrill’s twelve children (eight of whom survived infancy). Thomas Quantrill was a coppersmith when he and Caroline settled in Canal Dover the year before William’s birth. He later became a schoolteacher and the first principal of the Canal Dover Union School.
William attended his father’s school and graduated in 1853. After the elder Quantrill died in December 1854, William took a position as a teacher at Union School to help support his family. Quantrill’s employment as a teacher lasted only about a year before he headed west seeking greater opportunities. For roughly the next six years, he led a checkered life that ultimately led to crime.
Life in the West
After holding various jobs in Mendota, Illinois, and Fort Wayne, Indiana, Quantrill returned to Canal Dover in 1856, with little to show for his efforts. In February 1857, he struck out for Kansas with Henry Torrey and Harmon Beeson, two local men seeking a better life for their families in the West. The group settled in Johnson County, Kansas, near the Missouri border and established a small community named Tuscarora Lake in memory of the Tuscarawas River, which runs through Dover, Ohio.
Torrey and Beeson agreed to bankroll Quantrill’s land claim in return for some labor on their spreads, but when Quantrill reneged on the bargain a court settlement ordered Quantrill to repay his benefactors. The dispute with Torrey and Beeson prompted Quantrill to take up residence with other migrants from Canal Dover. Shortly thereafter, however, his new neighbors accused Quantrill of stealing and banished him from the community.
In the spring of 1858, Quantrill traveled to Utah as a teamster, or perhaps just as a hanger-on, with an army wagon train. He spent the next year at various locations in the Far West supporting himself as a gambler under the assumed name of Charley Hart before returning to Kansas in 1859. There he resumed teaching for a brief period. After that, Quantrill became somewhat of a vagrant, sometimes living with the Delaware Indians on their reservation north of the Kansas River. It was then that he fell in with a gang of border ruffians, adopting a life of crime, again under the alias of Charley Hart. As a member of the sordid group, Quantrill supplemented his income by capturing and returning runaway slaves for reward money. By 1861, Quantrill was in jail under indictment in Lawrence, Kansas, for horse theft and other crimes. After being released on bail, Quantrill left the state on April 3, 1861, to avoid standing trial.
After leaving Kansas, Quantrill traveled to Texas with a slaveholder named Mark Gill. He then moved on to live with American Indians in the Cherokee Nation. It was there that he presumably perfected his guerrilla skills by adopting Indian warfare tactics.
When the Civil War erupted, Quantrill enlisted and served as a private in Company A of the 1st Cherokee Regiment in the Confederate Army. His unit joined up with General Sterling Price‘s forces in Missouri in time to take part in the Confederate victories at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek (August 10, 1861) and the First Battle of Lexington (September 12-20, 1861).
By December 1861, Quantrill had become either disillusioned with Price’s leadership or disenchanted with army life, prompting him to desert. He began assembling Quantrill’s Raiders, a band of renegades that used guerrilla tactics to ambush Yankee patrols and terrorize Northern sympathizers. By 1862, Quantrill’s band of followers included infamous figures such as William T. “Bloody Bill” Anderson and the James and Younger brothers who led a notorious gang of outlaws after the war.
During 1862, the size of Quantrill’s gang grew to over a hundred men. It also included Sarah Katherine King, also known as Kate. Quantrill met Kate on her parent’s Missouri farm in late 1861. The Rebel leader fell in love with the thirteen-year-old girl and the feeling was mutual. When Kate’s disapproving father forbade her to see Quantrill, she ran off to the marauder’s camp. The couple probably married and Kate assumed Quantrill’s middle name (Clarke) as her last name to hide her identity as Quantrill’s wife if authorities captured her.
On August 11, 1862, Quantrill joined forces with Colonel J.T. Hughes’s regular Confederate soldiers to subdue a small federal force at the First Battle of Independence, Missouri. The Rebel victory enabled the Confederacy to establish control briefly of the area near Kansas City. Quantrill’s role in the Rebel victory may have led to him receiving an appointment as a captain in the Confederate army, however, the contention that Quantrill was ever a commissioned Confederate officer is still uncertain.
Looting Olathe, Kansas
As the war went on, Quantrill’s sorties grew in size. Just after midnight on September 7, 1862, Quantrill’s force of roughly 140 men stormed Olathe, Kansas. While holding the citizenry captive, they looted the town’s businesses and homes after killing six men.
Pillaging Shawneetown, Kansas
The next month Quantrill’s band came across a Union supply train near Shawneetown (now Shawnee), Kansas, on October 17. Quietly surrounding the unsuspecting Federals, the guerrillas launched a surprise attack easily killing thirteen soldiers. Quantrill’s men then donned the Union uniforms and rode unmolested into Shawneetown where they murdered several citizens, pillaged and burned the community’s businesses and homes, and then rode out with seven prisoners who they later executed.
Quantrill’s most notable raid occurred on August 21, 1863, as retribution for a series of events that began earlier in the year. In early August, federal troops commanded by Brigadier General Thomas Ewing began rounding up civilians who were aiding guerrillas operating within the District of the Border. Among those arrested were several female relatives and friends of Quantrill’s band. Authorities detained the women in a makeshift jail in Kansas City. On August 13, 1863, the building collapsed, killing four of the prisoners, including the sister of William T. “Bloody Bill” Anderson. A few days later a fifth girl died from her injuries.
In retaliation for the deaths, Quantrill orchestrated a raid on Lawrence, Kansas, home of free-state U.S. Senator James H. Lane. Quantrill loathed Lane, a noted Jayhawker who had conducted his own episodes of guerilla warfare during raids against pro-slavery civilians in Missouri earlier in the war. The deaths of nine local citizens during the Sacking of Osceola, Missouri, two years previously, particularly incensed Quantrill.
During the predawn hours of August 21, 1863, roughly 450 of Quantrill’s Raiders rode into Lawrence as most of the town’s unsuspecting residents slept. After occupying the Eldridge Hotel, the marauders broke into small groups and plundered the town for the next four hours. By the time the pillagers rode out, they had burned nearly one-quarter of the town’s buildings (including all but two businesses), robbed the bank, and looted every home.
Adding to the barbarity of their deeds, the raiders murdered between 160 and 190 men and boys, many of whom were unarmed. Beyond the human toll, the Leavenworth Daily Conservative’s account of the raid two days later estimated that financial losses exceeded two million dollars (in 1863 currency). Lane, who was in town when the assault began, escaped by hiding in a nearby cornfield.
Raid on Fort Blair
A few weeks after the Lawrence Massacre, Quantrill’s Raiders headed for Texas to spend the winter. As they made their way south, Quantrill raided Fort Blair, a small federal outpost in the southeast corner of Kansas near the town of Baxter Springs. As Quantrill’s advance scouts neared the fort on October 6, 1863, they surprised a black officer and a civilian practicing their marksmanship and murdered both unsuspecting men. Quantrill then split his force and attacked Fort Blair from two directions.
At about noon, the Rebels charged the garrison’s ninety soldiers as they sat down for lunch outside of the fort. Amidst a hail of gunfire, the startled Federals fled for the safety of the fort. Once safely behind the breastworks, the outnumbered, but better-disciplined, Union soldiers stymied the guerrilla attack. After losing the element of surprise, along with about ten of his men, Quantrill suspended the assault.
Baxter Springs Massacre
Following the failed sortie against Fort Blair, Quantrill reassembled the Raiders north of the fort where he spotted a wagon train approaching. Deprived of his initial objective, the Rebel leader opted to pursue a consolation prize. Led by Major General James G. Blunt, the convoy comprised Blunt’s headquarters staff and a military band accompanied by a few cavalrymen on their way to Fort Smith, Arkansas.
Concealing most of his men in a grove of nearby trees, Quantrill ordered an advance party dressed in federal uniforms to ride forward to meet Blunt. In return, the unsuspecting Union general sent his chief scout, Captain William Tough, forward to greet the advancing party. Tough soon recognized the approaching riders as members of Quantrill’s band of miscreants and he beat a hasty retreat to warn Blunt.
Tough’s alarm came too late for Blunt to mount a defense against the guerrillas who swarmed out of the woods. In the melee that followed, many of Blunt’s men fled in terror. Quantrill’s men quickly rode down and dispatched the fleeing Yankees. The Raiders also summarily executed others as they tried to escape on foot or after they tried to surrender. The guerrillas even murdered the band members who were reportedly unarmed. When the assault concluded, Quantrill’s men had killed most of Blunt’s party. Blunt and fourteen of his men escaped death by hiding in the woods or tall prairie grass.
Casualty numbers are inexact, but by the time the action around Baxter Springs ended on October 6, roughly 100 Union soldiers and sympathizers lay dead (about six of the fort’s garrison, a few civilians, and over eighty of Blunt’s men). Estimates for the number of guerrillas killed during the Baxter Springs Massacre, although highly speculative, totaled about ten.
Troubles in Texas
Upon arriving in Texas, Quantrill’s outlaws soon began targeting pro-Confederate residents of the Lone Star State. Their presence reached its nadir on March 28, 1864, when authorities arrested Quantrill for murdering a Confederate officer. Before being tried, Quantrill escaped into Indian Territory. Afterward, his outfit dispersed into splinter gangs led by George Todd and “Bloody” Bill Anderson.
Quantrill eventually made his way back to Missouri where he took no part in Sterling Price’s ill-fated invasion of Missouri in the autumn of 1864. Instead, Quantrill reunited with Kate Clarke and laid low. As the Confederacy’s fortunes worsened in late 1864, Quantrill reassembled some of his raiders and reportedly hatched a plot to travel to Washington to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. Departing in mid-December 1864, with a handful of guerrillas, Quantrill crossed the Mississippi River on New Year’s Day, headed for Kentucky. If Quantrill ever intended to assassinate Lincoln, he discarded the plan upon reaching the Bluegrass State where he resumed his life of crime. Lincoln was eventually assassinated by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth on April 15, 1865.
Death in Kentucky
On May 10, 1865, a band of federal irregulars surrounded Quantrill and his men in a barn owned by James H. Wakefield in Spencer County, Kentucky. In the ensuing gun battle, one of the Yankees shot Quantrill in the back as he tried to flee on horseback. The Union soldiers took the paralyzed desperado to a hospital in Louisville where he died a few weeks later on June 6, 1865, at age twenty-seven.
Quantrill’s remains were initially buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Louisville. In 1887, Quantrill’s mother visited the gravesite accompanied by Quantrill’s boyhood friend, William W. Scott. The couple had Quantrill’s body disinterred so that Mrs. Quantrill could make a positive identification. After doing so, they prepared the remains for shipment back to Ohio for reburial. During the preparations, they left behind some small bones and skeletal dust. While in transport, the unscrupulous Scott stole Quantrill’s skull and some large bones hoping to sell them as curiosities. The Kansas Historical Society eventually acquired most of the bones Scott pilfered. They interred those bones at Old Confederate Veteran’s Home Cemetery, Higginsville, Missouri, in 1972.
The skull became a curiosity that college fraternities used in rituals until they ended up with the Dover Historical Society in 1972. In 1992, the organization reunited with the bones with those brought from Louisville in 1887.
Today, there are three gravesites that reputedly contain parts of Quantrill’s remains: St. Mary’s Cemetery, Louisville, Kentucky; the Fourth Street Cemetery, Dover, Ohio; and the Old Confederate Veteran’s Home Cemetery, Higginsville, Missouri.